The unofficial start to Doc Rivers’ coaching career began ominously on an icy day in Grand Rapids, Mich., 20 years ago this winter.
Rivers had arrived to observe the coaching staff of the Grand Rapids Hoops of the Continental Basketball Association, but before he ever got to the arena to learn the nuances of a profession he’d long resisted, he first had to deal with his rental pickup truck.
Temperatures were so cold that the hand-crank operating the driver’s side window had frozen. At drive-thru restaurants, Rivers had to open the door to get his food.
“He couldn’t get the window up,” said Brendan O’Connor, then a Hoops assistant coach. “Freezing.”
Once on the sideline, Rivers quickly warmed to the idea of making coaching his future.
“The most valuable thing about being there,” Rivers said, “was all the different situations that are thrown at you from coaching, personnel and player relationships.”
Two decades later, Rivers returns to Michigan for Saturday’s matchup with the Detroit Pistons among the most established coaches in NBA history, having passed Jack Ramsay this season for 13th on the league’s all-time victories list. A few rookies weren’t yet born when he coached his first game with the Orlando Magic in the 1999-2000 season.
Upon his hiring in Orlando it was noted that Rivers had no coaching experience. But that wasn’t quite right. Eight months earlier, he’d spent nearly three weeks helping O’Connor, now a Clippers assistant, and Hoops head coach Mark Hughes, now an assistant general manager in the Clippers’ front office, as they navigated life in the CBA.
“From all the things that came out of his mouth it was like he’d been doing it for a long time,” O’Connor said. “I do remember being like, my God, this guy, I can’t believe he hasn’t coached a game before.”
It wasn’t a given that Rivers would turn to coaching after his 13-year NBA career as a point guard ended. Brendan Suhr, who’d drafted Rivers in Atlanta in 1983, was one of the many coaches who implored Rivers to consider it.
“I’d always told him he’d be a terrific coach,” Suhr said. “It was not something he cherished when I said that.”
Suhr saw a gifted communicator whose playing days provided credibility, but Rivers first used those skills providing commentary during games for Turner Sports. While the job helped him study coaches’ strategies across the league, he also enjoyed the work. But during the 1998-99 season, with the NBA’s players and owners at a labor impasse for nearly seven months, there were no games to call.
The CBA still was playing, however. Suhr, who had remained close with Rivers, had coached the Hoops in 1996 and liked it so much he bought the team. He suggested Rivers get a closer look at coaching there. Rivers also shared an agent with Hughes, who called to share the idea.
“He says, ‘Doc Rivers is thinking of getting into coaching, would you mind if he comes down?’ ” Hughes said. “He wanted to learn everything.”
The CBA was fertile ground for coaches. Before they became NBA head coaches, Flip Saunders, George Karl and Terry Stotts all pulled tours in the CBA, where coaches were put through a crash-course on everything from out-of-timeout plays to roster management. Small rosters forced creativity. With the NBA still years away from launching its own developmental league, the CBA was its feeder system.
“It was a war every night,” O’Connor said.
Both Hughes and O’Connor recall Rivers as all-in, working with players in practices and conferring with coaches from behind the bench. Once, after a storm canceled flights, Rivers boarded the bus with the rest of the Hoops for a trip to Iowa. About 20 miles in, O’Connor remembered, they learned the storm had closed highways in Indiana as well, and the Hoops waited out the storm at the first interstate hotel they could find. Whenever the Clippers now travel amid a snowstorm, O’Connor and Rivers share a knowing glance with one another.
“Like Grand Rapids!” O’Connor said.
Hughes remembers Rivers as sensitive not to overstep his role as an observer while still offering his thoughts. When Hughes neglected to use a timeout late in the fourth quarter of one game to advance the ball, Rivers told Hughes his assistants should track timeout usage so he could be better prepared.
“Think about a guy who’s been a point guard his whole life,” Hughes said. “He just thinks the game. The reason I knew he wanted to be a coach then? He took a ton of notes. Every time I look up he’s jotting stuff down.”
His notes were soon put to use. Following the lockout Rivers traveled to Orlando to observe as the Magic prepared for the abbreviated season under Suhr, an assistant, and coach Chuck Daly. Within months, Daly was interviewing Rivers to be his successor. Rivers coached his first game the following fall.
Coaching, Suhr had told Rivers during their talks, was like flying a plane through constant turbulence.
“Your job,” he said, “is to land that plane safely.”
Sometimes, it just means ensuring a freezing pickup truck makes it to the arena on time.
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